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The Dangers of Yo-Yo Dieting

Weight Maintenance and The Dangers of Yo-Yo Dieting


Many of our clients are often caught in the cycle of losing weight and gaining weight. Losing the weight again, and gaining it back again. This is often called yo-yo dieting.

Yo-yo dieting is a term coined by Kelly D. Brownell at Yale University, in reference to the cyclical loss and gain of weight, resembling the up-down motion of a yo-yo. In this process, the dieter is initially successful in the pursuit of weight loss but is unsuccessful in maintaining the loss long-term and begins to gain the weight back. The dieter then seeks to lose the regained weight, and the cycle begins again.

Dangers of Yo-Yo Dieting

1. More Weight Gain Over Time

During dieting, fat loss leads to decreased levels of the hormone leptin, which normally helps you feel full. Under normal circumstances, our fat stores release leptin into the bloodstream. This tells the body that energy stores are available, and signals you to eat less. As you lose fat, leptin decreases and appetite increases. This leads to increased appetite as the body tries to resupply depleted energy stores. The loss of muscle mass during dieting causes the body to conserve energy. When most people use a short-term diet to lose weight, they will regain 30–65% of that lost weight within one year. One in three dieters ends up heavier than before they dieted. This weight gain completes the “up” phase of yo-yo dieting and often prompts dieters to begin another cycle of weight loss.

2. Higher Body Fat Percentage

In some studies, yo-yo dieting has led to an increased percentage of body fat. During the weight gain phase of yo-yo dieting, fat is regained more easily than muscle mass. This can result in your client’s body fat percentage increasing over multiple yo-yo cycles. In one review, 11 out of 19 studies found that a history of yo-yo dieting predicted a higher body fat percentage and greater belly fat. This is more pronounced following a weight loss diet than with more subtle and sustainable lifestyle changes and may be responsible for the yo-yo effect.

3. Muscle Loss

During weight-loss diets, the body loses muscle mass as well as body fat. Because fat is regained more easily than muscle after weight loss, this can lead to more loss of muscle over time. Muscle loss during dieting also leads to decreased physical strength. These effects can be reduced with exercise, including strength training. Exercising signals the body to grow muscle, even when the rest of the body is slimming down. During weight loss, the body’s dietary protein requirement also increases. Eating enough quality protein sources can help reduce muscle loss. One study showed that when 114 adults took protein supplements as they were losing weight, they lost less muscle mass.

4. Increased Risk of Diabetes

Yo-yo dieting is associated with a higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes, although not all studies found evidence for this. A review of several studies showed that a history of yo-yo dieting predicted type 2 diabetes in four out of 17 studies. A study of 15 adults showed that when participants regained weight after 28 days of weight loss, it was mostly belly fat.

Belly fat is more likely to lead to diabetes than fat stored in other locations, such as the arms, legs or hips. One study showed increased insulin levels in rats that went through 12 months of weight cycling, compared to those that gained weight consistently. Increased insulin levels like these can be an early sign of diabetes. Although diabetes has not been seen in all human studies of yo-yo dieting, it is probably most increased in people who end up at a higher weight than before their diet.

5. Unhealthier Than Staying Overweight?

While it’s still being studied, early research has shown that people are better off staying at their recommended body weight. In a study, participants had their BMI taken twice each year to determine weight fluctuation. After a 14-year follow up, the research team observed nearly 10% of those who experienced the most weight fluctuation died, compared to the 4.9% of participants who experienced the least amount of fluctuation. There are other factors involved, but depending on your client’s current weight and BMI, staying consistent may be better than falling victim to yo-yo dieting. Your client’s best bet is to lose weight and keep it off.

Maintaining Weightloss Can Feel Unrewarding

Clients often take an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to fitness or nutrition. It’s common for them to feel that if they are not improving in some capacity then they are failing. In their minds a plateau or lack of progress equals regression. To them, the lack of forward momentum means backward movement.

As trainers, we know that this reduction in activity and increase in calories will not result in measurable progress, yet the fact that your client is still making the effort to incorporate workouts and eat as well as possible is good enough reason to offer kudos for making these efforts a part of their lifestyle.

As fitness professionals, it’s important for us to consider what else is happening in our clients’ lives in order to gauge accurately the potential for progress. It’s not an exciting goal to maintain your client’s current health or fitness level. But for some individuals, it’s an important task to accomplish so they can understand and establish a baseline of behaviors to avoid regression.

Regaining Some Weight is Normal

It is common after significant weight loss to reach an all-time low on the scale, and easy for your client to slip into the idea that this low number should be the weight at which they remain. The frequency and intensity of workouts combined with following a rigid diet would make maintaining that an all-time low number on the scale is an all-consuming task. The workouts and calorie intake that led to weight loss are not sustainable because a person cannot lose weight indefinitely.

Once a person reaches or surpasses their weight loss goal, the priority should shift from the number on the scale to body composition or performance. It is possible to continue to optimize body composition and performance (lose fat, build muscle and strength) and have the scale weight increase. This is a teaching moment for your client to learn to embrace the important distinction between weight loss and fat loss.

Weight Loss vs Weight Maintenance

The same way we maintain our hygiene, your client must understand that continuing to engage in an active lifestyle and conscientious nutrition are the cornerstones of weight maintenance. Once in this phase, the rigors and stress of diet and exercise should be replaced by habits that feel as commonplace as showering or brushing one’s teeth.

Developing new health-oriented habits mimics any other process of skill acquisition. As your client develops competency, and ultimately mastery, of these skills (managing energy balance, engaging in regular exercise), the amount of time necessary devoted to cultivating these skills will decrease.

How to Help Clients Maintain a Healthy Weight

If you want to help clients with food, diet, weight management and improving the results of their fitness routines, the Fitness Nutrition Coach course is for you. You will learn about optimal nutrition, including proven techniques for increasing energy, optimal health and decreased dependence on medications. Instantly increase your job and career opportunities with this popular professional credential.

Become a Lifestyle Weight Management Specialist.  Help your clients achieve their weight loss or weight management goals using the latest proven strategies.

You can become a Certified Personal Fitness Chef and expand your current personal chef business, or add a new profit center for your fitness or wellness business. Many personal chefs cook and coach people in groups to help more people and earn more money per hour. Some chefs provide weekly meal prep service for health-minded customers and athletes.

Check out what it takes to start a career in personal fitness training. This is your most affordable and fastest way to become a highly qualified personal trainer.

NESTA coaching programs are open to anyone with a desire to learn and help others. There are no prerequisites.

That’s it for now.

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